ITEN, Kenya (Reuters) - A new generation of Kenyan athletes will have the chance to shine at next month's world championships after the country's expectations were lowered following a series of big-name withdrawals from the team.
Kenya won 17 medals, including seven golds, at the 2011 Daegu world championships but few expect the same level of success in Moscow.
The team has been hit by withdrawals including world 800 meters record holder David Rudisha, 5,000 and 10,000 world champion Vivian Cheruiyot and marathon gold medallist Abel Kirui.
However, Kenya's head coach Sammy Rono believes the younger athletes are under no pressure and capable of surprising everyone.
"I am conscious of the fact that we have a lot of work to do to match the performance of Daegu," Rono said.
"We will miss Vivian and Rudisha in Moscow, but these young runners cannot be ignored. All the top stars started from somewhere and that is where these young guys are now," he added.
"We have some good athletes like the 1,500 meters team, where a Kenyan (Asbel Kiprop) has the season's best time, and men's steeplechase (Ezekiel Kemboi) and 5,000 (Edwin Soi)," said Rono.
Only three gold medalists from Daegu - Asbel Kiprop in the 1,500, women's marathon winner Edna Kiplagat and men's 3,000 steeplechase champion Ezekiel Kemboi - will defend their titles in Moscow.
"I fear that we are going to have it rough," said Ayoki Onyango, a Kenyan sports commentator. "But now is the time to prove our strength and ensure that our athletes, whether young or old, experienced or not, can deliver."
Kenya had a poor showing at last year's London Olympics, after targeting 12 golds and ending up with just two from Rudisha and Kemboi.
"Although we have some athletes in this team with a point to prove, our performance probably won't be as good as that of Daegu and certainly not as bad as London," said Brother Colm O'Connell, the Irish missionary who coaches Rudisha.
Rudisha had been hot favorite to retain his 800 world title but in his absence due to a knee injury, Jeremiah Mutai, one of the Kenyans selected for the event, said it would be an uphill task for the East African nation to win the gold.
"It will be very difficult (without Rudisha). We know the country is worried about that, but we will try our best," said Mutai, a world championships debutant.
With the dominant Rudisha missing, several athletes who have been in the shadow of the tall Maasai runner are now eyeing up their chance for a medal in an event where Ethiopia's Mohammed Aman has become the favorite.
"The 800 meters title will be up grabs and the winner will be the runner who will be mentally-prepared and is tactically able to rise to the occasion," O'Connell said.
Isaiah Kiplagat, the Athletics Kenya chief, said the team was "equal to the task" in Moscow but warned Russians athletes would be formidable opponents on home soil.
"Kenyans should be wary of Russians who have not been running in the Diamond League circuit because they will be running at home and they probably want to excel," he said.
(Writing By Drazen Jorgic; Editing by George Obulutsa and Alison Wildey)